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Know Before You Go: Visiting Mauna Kea Summit and Observatory

Here’s what to know and how to visit the Mauna Kea Summit and Observatory.

mauna kea summit and observatory
Hi, I'm Karen!

Karen is a Scottish freelance travel and culture writer based in the US. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, National Geographic, BBC, and Condé Nast Traveler.

Visiting the Mauna Kea Summit and Observatory is a top priority for many visitors to the Big Island of Hawaii—for good reason. At 13,796 feet (4,138 meters) tall, the dormant volcano is Hawaii's tallest peak, and its summit is one of the best astronomical sites in the world: Scientists at the Mauna Kea Observatories (MKO) view galaxies far, far away through some of the world's largest telescopes. Visiting the Mauna Kea Summit and Observatory requires some advanced planning though, so here’s what to keep in mind.

Can I drive to Mauna Kea summit?

car driving past wind turbines en route to mauna kea summit and observatory
If you have a 4WD vehicle, you'll have no trouble.Photo Credit: Herr Loeffler / Shutterstock

If you have the right vehicle, you can drive to the summit of Mauna Kea.

You’ll need a 4WD vehicle to reach the summit of Mauna Kea. From Hilo, take Saddle Road west for around 45 minutes up the mountain to the Visitor Information Station (VIS), where you’ll find a parking area on the left-hand side of the paved road. The VIS sits at 9,300 feet (2,790 meters), and it is strongly recommended that you take a 30-minute to 1-hour break here to acclimatize to the altitude. From the VIS, the road to the summit is unpaved and very steep. If you’re not a confident driver, book a tour instead.

Insider tip: Check your rental car company’s terms; many companies do not permit renters to drive their vehicles to the summit.

Can I walk to the summit of Mauna Kea?

hiking trail on mauna kea
It's an arduous hike to the top of Mauna Kea.Photo Credit: Felix Nendzig / Shutterstock

Travelers in good physical condition can summit Mauna Kea.

Active travelers who are experienced and in good physical condition can tackle the Mauna Kea Summit trail that leads hikers 6 miles (9.6 kilometers) from the VIS and back. This hike is very challenging due to the quick elevation gain of 4,500 feet (1,372 meters). You’ll need to set out early in the day as it typically takes 7–8 hours round trip. Be sure to take it easy, as making too quick of an ascent can cause debilitating altitude sickness.

Can I visit the Mauna Kea Observatory?

Mauna Kea Observatory
Unfortunately the observatory is not open to the public.Photo Credit: Andreas Koeberl / Shutterstock

The observatories are not open to the public, but you can still go stargazing.

While the observatories are not open to the public, you can still get a taste of astronomy at Mauna Kea by booking a guided tour with stargazing. Tour operators typically have their own powerful telescopes through which to view the night sky. Alternatively, you can join a free stargazing event at the VIS, although these are rare occurrences. Held just once a month, these events require reservation and have limited availability—reservations typically open up one month before the event.

Should I book a tour of Mauna Kea?

slope of mauna kea
A tour can certainly make your Mauna Kea experience less of a hassle.Photo Credit: Mason Lake Photo / Shutterstock

A tour is the best way to visit Mauna Kea.

There are many factors to consider when visiting Mauna Kea, including the roads, the elevation, and the importance of respectfully visiting a sacred place to Native Hawaiians. Therefore, visiting with a guide is the best way to go. You can leave the driving and other logistics to your guide, who will fill you in on all the important information about Mauna Kea and most likely have warm clothing and hot drinks to share.

When is the best time to visit Mauna Kea?

sunrise as seen from mauna kea
Visit during sunrise or sunset.Photo Credit: macchew / Shutterstock

Sunrise and sunset are both spectacular times to visit Mauna Kea.

Mauna Kea’s sunset is widely rated as the best in Hawaii—watch the sun dip below the clouds and set the surrounding landscape ablaze, and you’ll understand why. If you want to catch the sunset from the summit, you should allow enough time to acclimatize at the VIS (30 minutes to 1 hour) before continuing to the summit. Bear in mind that the road to the summit closes 30 minutes after sunset. If you only want to go as far as the VIS, you can find a good nearby sunset viewing spot by following the Sunset Hill Trail. Parking at the VIS fills up quickly, so arrive early.

Early risers can enjoy an equally stunning spectacle, with fewer crowds, by watching the sunrise. While the road to the summit is closed overnight, it opens up 30 minutes before sunrise. The Mauna Kea access road to the VIS is open 24 hours.

What should I wear to go to Mauna Kea?

hiker on mauna kea summit with snow
Dress warmly when you ascend Mauna Kea—and wear sunscreen.Photo Credit: Lopolo / Shutterstock

You should dress and pack for Mauna Kea’s unique conditions.

Dress in layers because the summit of Mauna Kea can be very cold and windy. Because of the lowered levels of atmospheric protection on Mauna Kea, you should protect yourself with high-UV sunscreen, sunglasses, and a sun hat. It is essential to bring extra water with you as the air at the summit is very dry—500 mililiters (16.9 fluid ounces) per person per hour is recommended. Good walking shoes, or sturdy hiking boots, are also essential if you’re planning to hike. No services are available at the summit, so plan ahead and prepare for unexpected emergencies.

Is Mauna Kea accessible?

beach near mauna kea
Mauna Kea is not particularly accesible.Photo Credit: Ashley Hadzopoulos / Shutterstock

Visitors with specific access needs should be cautious.

Visiting Mauna Kea is tricky for travelers with special needs. There are accessible parking spots available near the VIS, but the parking lot is on uneven, gravel ground. The summit is also all gravel. Visitors who are pregnant, have high blood pressure, a heart or respiratory condition, or are under 13 years of age should not go above the VIS. Neither should anyone who is intoxicated or has been scuba diving in the prior 24 hours.

Frequently asked questions

mauna kea landscape
Mauna Kea's landscape looks almost alien.Photo Credit: Marisa Estivill / Shutterstock

Everything you need to know about visiting Mauna Kea.

  • Why is Mauna Kea so special? Native Hawaiians consider Mauna Kea the most sacred of all Hawaii’s volcanoes. It is the piko (the Hawaiian word for “navel”) where all life begins, and the two realms of heaven and earth meet.
  • What does Mauna Kea mean? Mauna Kea roughly means “white mountain” in Hawaiian—an abbreviation of Mauna a Wākea. The traditional Hawaiian spelling is one word, Maunakea. Although more widely used, Mauna Kea spelled as two words refers to any white mountain.
  • Is Mauna Kea a volcano? Yes, Mauna Kea is a volcano, albeit a dormant one. It last erupted 4,600 years ago. It is expected to erupt again, but not anytime soon.

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